At home in India he’s a hugely successful and influential figure in Bollywood. He’s an actor, screenwriter, director and producer with countless movies to his name, not least one leftfield credit that won him acclaim in the west: this poet and songwriter wrote the lyrics for the songs on Bride and Prejudice, the Anglo-Indian musical romcom that was director Gurinder Chadha’s follow-up to Bend It Like Beckham.
More than that: this is a multi-hyphenate with creativity in his genes, stretching back (literally) centuries – on his father’s side, there have been acclaimed poets in the family for seven generations (“that we are aware of”).
“Music and film have always been my passions,” explains this lifelong guitarist. “Both my parents are screenwriters so it really was a very artistic environment I grew up in, where there was a lot of emphasis on the writer’s job. A lot of evening conversations were about characters and stories and screenplays.
“That is something that probably influenced me to want to belong to that world. So the whole concept of wanting to do something within film, stemming from writing, was incredibly clear to me from a very young age.”
More than that, again: Farhan is an activist who applied his lifelong passions for music and film – not to mention his celebrity in the sub-continent – to found an organisation and travel round India, educating young men “about their responsibility in the gender discourse”. As well as this, Farhan is also the South Asia goodwill ambassador for UN WOMEN – The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
And now, finally, Farhan has written and recorded his debut album. Echoes is the album of his life, a set of classic-sounding, self-written songs that reflect a childhood steeped in the greats of both Indian music, Kishore Kumar, musician Ravi Shankar and of western rock and pop: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, David Bowie. Recorded in Milan, the rich, melodic album was produced by Grammy-winning producer Tommaso Colliva (Franz Ferdinand, Jesus and Mary Chain, Muse).
Farhan has made music before now – not least playing the part of the frontman of a rock band in the critically acclaimed film Rock On!! (2008) – but he’s been keen to record his own album for a long time. Yet for years, his other interests – and life – got in the way. And then, he admits with the candour typical of his emotionally honest lyrics, a couple of years ago life got in the way, but in a different manner.
“Over the last two years I felt a little bit of a burn-out setting in, just from working on films non-stop. I felt tired of having to get up and report to set every single day. So I took a break. I haven’t shot a film now in 18 months.
“ I just felt I needed some time out for myself, to reconnect with other things, to look at where my life’s at – there were many changes happening simultaneously, the biggest being the end of a 16-year marriage.
“I wanted to channel what I was feeling, and put it out there, just to share with people. And I found that process very cathartic.”
Key to that process was one of the standouts on Echoes, ‘Let’s Be Friends Again’. It’s a bouncy song with the energy of Sixties R&B.
“I wrote that about the evolution of my relationship with my now ex-wife. Hoping that we can maybe arrive at a place we were at when we first got together – really good friends.”
The words and music, written on guitar, came easily, although he concedes some alarm at the prospect of opening up in public, especially given the huge interest in India in his personal life. This, after all, is an all-rounder artist who can command live audiences up to 40,000 strong.
“There was some thought about how, when I put this out there, everyone who knows me will know what it’s about. So I had a little bit of hesitancy about that. But at the same time, I thought: I must share this. There will be lots of people who are going through these emotions, who are at this crossroads, who are having these changes in their relationships. So maybe this can help them to think a little bit differently about where they’re at.”
‘Rear View Mirror’, the opening track and lead single, also deals with Farhan’s changing personal circumstances. With a Bowie-esque vocal and a funky groove, he lays bare his feelings about the end of his marriage.
“It’s me dealing with the guilt of being the one who ended the relationship. But it’s important to move past the guilt so as to evolve. There’s no point in looking past and looking forward at the same time – you’re never going to end up anywhere.”
At the other end of the time and romance spectrum is the lovely, cello-flecked, Nick Drake-like ‘Seagull’, initially written as a poem 25 years ago.
“It was dealing with having been in love with someone, and her having to move away from Mumbai to where she came from. I knew that for practical reasons that relationship was over. It’s about remembering the good times, letting go of that person, and not hanging on to the negatives.”
‘Love Is Not Enough’, which could be a Hunky Dory outtake, also began life as poem.
“It’s me questioning what it takes to keep a relationship together, to keep it going. It’s not about falling out of love with someone; sometimes it’s a compatibility thing. But as I was writing it, it didn’t feel right to be too introspective or too dark. It just naturally started veering towards wanting to be a happier song. So I just followed that instinct.”
Then there’s ‘Bird On The Wire’, which sounds like an inventive retake on U2’s Trip Through Your Wires.
“Wow, interesting!” Farhan laughs. “That’s definitely not anything that was in my consciousness when I was writing. But The Joshua Tree is one of my favourite albums, so it’s probably something that’s subliminally influenced me and that came through in terms of the thought.”
The largely acoustic ‘Why Couldn’t It Be Me’ is an important song in other ways. It’s the only song that “isn’t looking inward but it’s about an external event”. It was written in response to a massacre in Peshawar in Pakistan, when the Taliban stormed into an army school and shot over 200 children.
Afterwards, Farhan read an article about “a mother whose younger son hadn’t gone to school that day because he’d pretended to be sick. But his older sibling had gone and had been killed in the massacre.
“When I read that story I thought it must be such a strange dilemma for a young boy – ‘that could have been me in place of my brother.’ So just that thought got me writing, so I wrote from the perspective of that younger brother.”
That desire for connecting, for reaching out, also informs another of Farhan’s interests. In 2013 he launched an organisation called Men Against Rape and Discrimination – MARD, where mard also means “man” in Hindi.
“It started in response to a gang rape that happened in Delhi in December 2012. The world heard about it. There was a lot of anger and frustration and feeling of helplessness. There is so much violence happening in India, especially against women and girls.
“I felt at that point that I wanted to reach out to boys and younger men and start speaking to them about their concept of masculinity. What it means to be a man.”
From this he conceived a different kind of touring.
“That’s where the idea of going to colleges and engaging with students started from. And that evolved into the idea of going there, and showing them what we do in music and film, which all those kids love. And while we’re there we have a session, during or after the concert, where you talk to the students about these issues.”
As he said earlier, it’s about sharing, and about connecting. With his inbuilt artistry and his CV – not to mention his genes – Farhan has already proven he’s adept at speaking to millions, and at using his voice for change. And now, with his tuneful, universal debut album, this gifted musician is ready to speak to people in a whole new winning way.
Explaining the album’s title, he notes that, “Echoes. It’s about chapters in my life and voices in my head that have influenced the writing. All of us have our personal journeys through life, through love. We struggle at times to make sense of our emotions and of the world around us. So here I am, speaking as honestly as I can about my journey.”